The number of new mothers in the United States who begin and sustain breast feeding is among the lowest in the world. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, about 79% of infants are breastfed, in the U.S. only 21.4% are.

A recent statement in the November issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association outlined exactly why breast milk is the best milk for babies in most circumstances. The association went so far as to recommend exclusive breast feeding (no other liquids or solids) for infants for their first six months of life, followed by continuation of breastfeeding through at least one year of age with the gradual introduction of solids starting after six months. The World Health Organization echoes these guidelines but extends the recommended period of breastfeeding through at least age two years. The American Academy of Pediatrics contends that breastfed infants should be the standard against which all other feeding methods are compared with respect to growth, health, development, and other outcomes. All three organizations cite the numerous health benefits of breastfeeding to both infant and mother.

The association went so far as to recommend exclusive breastfeeding (no other liquids or solids) for infants for their first six months of life, followed by continuation of breastfeeding through at least one year of age...

What Breast Milk Offers... And Doesn't

Human breast milk is uniquely suited to human infants with the appropriate balance of nutrients contained in forms that the infant's system can absorb and utilize. The composition of the milk itself changes from colostrum to mature milk as the infant progresses from the newborn period to older infancy. However, human milk has insufficient amounts of vitamin D, and the Academy of Pediatrics recommends that vitamin D supplementation be started for breastfed infants in the first few days of life to avoid deficiency. Also, since breast milk does not contain fluoride, and fluoride supplementation has been shown to significantly decrease cavities, breastfed babies who are six months or older and are not drinking fluoridated water should begin fluoride supplementation.

Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce infant deaths from all causes except congenital anomalies and cancers. Exclusive breastfeeding is associated with lowered rates of hospitalization from infections during the first year of life. More specifically, breastfeeding has been shown to lower rates of ear infections, stomach/intestinal infections, and infections of the lungs. There is a 15−19% reduction in the risk of developing childhood leukemia for a child who is breastfed for at least six months. Breastfeeding has also positively impacted the development of atopic dermatitis, eczema, and asthma in infants whose families have strong histories of these conditions. It is also associated with a decrease in Sudden Infant Death syndrome and in a serious intestinal complication of prematurity called necrotizing enterocolitis.

Breastfeeding also has some long−term health implications including a reduction in the incidence of elevated blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes when the infants reach adulthood. Some studies have also suggested increased IQ and improved cognitive development (thinking and reasoning skills) in breastfed infants which may be related to components of the breast milk itself as well as to the enhanced mother−infant bonding which may lead to increased stimulation and communication between the pair.

Good for Mothers, Too

Breastfeeding has several extremely important health consequences for the mothers. They have a decreased risk of both breast and ovarian cancers as well as a decrease in type two diabetes (as long as the mothers did not have gestational diabetes.) Additionally, mothers who are breastfeeding their infants experience lower rates of postpartum depression.

Many of the reasons why women do and don't choose to start or continue breastfeeding are known. Poor support from hospitals, medical professionals, families, and peers, as well as lack of knowledge, early return to work, early introduction of formula, and cultural and personal beliefs can all undermine successful breastfeeding. Conversely, supportive hospital practices such as beginning breastfeeding shortly after birth, rooming in, and discouraging the routine use of formula with breastfeeding infants have all been shown to make a difference. Additionally, peer counselors, paid maternity leave, breastfeeding−friendly policies at the work place (such as private areas for feeding or pumping and flexible work scheduling) have been effective.

When Breastfeeding is Not Advised

There are some situations in which breastfeeding is not recommended and women should seek the guidance of their babies' physicians if they have questions or concerns. Such situations include certain maternal illnesses or required medications and certain newborn conditions or illnesses. Some of these situations may be temporary and the breast milk supply may be maintained by pumping until the problematic issue has been resolved.

The decision to breastfeed is an important one. It is equally important for fathers to be supportive involved with the process. Ideally, questions and considerations should be raised long before the delivery. New mothers should find sources of peer and professional support before the baby arrives. New parents should feel comfortable seeking the help of their babies' doctors and as problems and questions inevitably arise in the earliest days of feeding.